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Hadestown Sings It Again

Retelling of the ancient myth of Orpheus and Eurydice is wonderfully atmospheric.
Eurydice (Hannah Whitley)

Eurydice (Hannah Whitley) /Broadway Grand Rapids

"It's an old song, but we're gonna sing it again."

That's the promise of Hadestown, the Tony Award-winning musical that retells the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. By moving the action from ancient Greece to a lightly post-apocalyptic New Orleans, Hadestown accomplishes something of a miracle: making us care again, even if we know how the story ends. 

The show opens with "Road To Hell," a piece of jazzy exposition anchored by Hermes (Nathan Lee Graham), the messenger god. He is both in the action and removed from it. So are the Fates, those three powerful and capricious women. They watch as a young, poverty-stricken woman named Eurydice (Hannah Whitley) walks into a bar. A young man, entranced by her beauty, approaches her (talk about old songs). But this is no ordinary young man -- this is Orpheus (J. Antonio Rodriguez), a poet and songwriter touched by the gods. 

The story that follows could be summarized in a few sentences. What makes it succeed as well as it does (and Hadestown succeeds beautifully) is not the tale itself (of which we know the broad strokes) or even the writing (which can be moving but also leaden). Instead, it succeeds because of the music. The music is glorious, soaked in American spirits (folk, blues, and jazz), and ranging from the deep, shadowy valleys of Hades' realm to the soaring heights of Orpheus' falsetto. It's both a triumph and a gauntlet throw -- if Hadestown can sound this good, why can't everything?

Almost as astonishing as the music is the stagecraft. Light, shadow, and sound serve to transform what, at first glance, appears to be a relatively simple set into everything from an industrial hellscape to the setting for a dark and unmapped journey and back to the homey bar it first appeared to be. There's a cinematic quality to the show. Hadestown wants to grab you, and it does.

The second half is set mostly in the Underground, ruled by Hades (Matthew Patrick Quinn) and Persephone (Maria-Christina Oliveras). Both are wonderfully cast. Quinn, tall and commanding, invests Hades with a dark charm. The god has the strength and the barely-concealed rage of a despot. Persephone medicates herself with alcohol. Fabulous, boozy, and sad, she's a distinct New Orleans figure, and her spotlight number "Our Lady of the Underground" is one of the show's highlights. Although it's Orpheus and Eurydice's show, this couple, both older and more interesting, proves the better draw.

Too often these days, musicals are stale and unambitious, relying on big franchise names and catalogs of songs we already know. Despite going back to an old well (or, maybe, because of it), Hadestown draws fresh water. What a show!


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